Category Archives: Sermon Archives

Poppies and Lamps Cast Out Darkness (The Rev. Dr. Eric Kimball Hinds)

Poppies and Lamps Cast Out Darkness
The fall of my Junior year in college I studied abroad in London.  It was about this time of year that I had a week off from classes so I decided to travel to Scotland.  I took the midnight train from Kings Cross Station and arrived in Edinburgh early in the morning.  After securing lodging at a Bed and Breakfast, I set out to explore the city and began to notice that perhaps every fourth person or so was wearing a red poppy.  As the week went on it seemed that just about everyone was sporting a red poppy.  You had to look find someone not wearing one.  The reason for wearing the poppy was a mystery to me—and so I asked an older woman who patiently explained that they were a part of the observance of Remembrance Day which began after WW I to remember the members of the armed forces who died in the line of duty.  She also explained that proceeds from the sale of the paper red poppies were directed towards ex-servicemen in need of welfare & financial support.
Ever since the poem In Flanders Fields, the beautiful imagery of fields of poppies has become mixed with: lament for blood spilled, for lives lost, and for remembrance.  Many of you I am sure are familiar with the poem In Flanders Fields, which was written during the First World War, after John McCrae, a Canadian artillery commander and physician, observed poppies growing in the midst off battlefields where many soldiers had been buried.  The fifteen line poem reads:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.
The poem sets down a variety of images that sit together uneasily.  The fragility of life and a place where death has become commonplace.  The beauty of fields of poppies and larks singing in the sky stand in stark contrast with the violence of war.  And in the final verse—there is the image of a torch passed from failing hands to those still fighting.
What eventually dawned on me while walking the streets of Edinburgh was the magnitude of loss that the people of the United Kingdom suffered and still felt decades after the end of both World Wars.  Their sense of collective loss was far more intense than anything that I had experienced at home.  This impression was confirmed as eventually I observed everywhere long lists of names of fallen parishioners in the war memorials found within English and Scottish Churches.  This weekend marks a strange juxtaposition of holidays where the Commonwealth Nations set aside November 11th to remember the dead, whereas for us, Veterans Day is set aside to honor the living—those who are currently serving or who have served our country.  By contrast we set aside Memorial Day to intentionally remember our fallen.

 

At first glance this morning’s Gospel would seem to have nothing to do with our national observance of Veterans Day this weekend.  And yet, like the poem In Flanders Field, there is an uneasiness to the Gospel Story.  We have a story of a wedding feast, a bridegroom, and bridesmaids.  And yet, in the midst of beauty and celebration, we suddenly have a scene of judgement—where the five foolish bridesmaids are locked out of the Kingdom.  It is a difficult scene—for who among us has not misjudged a situation at one time or another been unprepared, as in not having extra oil for lamps or been so tired that one is unable to stay awake for something important.
For me the hard part of this Gospel, and the hard part of this weekend is the unfairness that seeps through—Not knowing if one is vigilant enough, or prudent enough, to make it into the kingdom.  And a holiday that rightly celebrates the living, but recognizes that it is impossible to accomplish without also remembering our fallen, and knowing the immense pain suffered by both the living and the dead.  The ambiguity of this morning’s Gospel also brings to mind the uneasy way that armed conflict sits juxtaposed with the church’s longing for a peaceable kingdom.
Perhaps the most meaningful imagery that comes to us from the Gospel today is that of the lamps shining in the darkness.  The acknowledgement that in all kinds of ways, and in a hundred different situations—we may find ourselves in the dark, facing uncertainty, crisis, doubt, unbelief, disaster, or an unexpected trial or tribulation—and yet the greater witness of our gathering for Church this day, and our worship Sunday by Sunday—the greater witness of wearing poppy’s or marking Veteran’s Day—is to demonstrate that we are never alone in the dark.  That we are part of a larger community that at our best learns to hold lamps for one another—knowing that Christ is with us as we pray for one another, and that we are called to lift one another up, in good times and in bad, in life, and in death.
In fact, the poem In Flanders Fields, is a tribute of sorts to a solider offering remembrance for a fallen comrade.  The poem was written in the days after John McCrae presided over his friend’s funeral.  In this context the poem is an enduring testament of the triumph of community, friendship and the Gospel of love. 
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Sermon preached by The Reverend Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on 12 November 2017, The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year One.  Lessons: Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16; Psalm 70; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13.

Saint Francis Embraces God’s Love Song for the World (The Rev. Dr. Eric Hinds)

Music soothes the Savage Beast.  I first herd that quote as a boy while watching a scene on TV where Bugs Bunny was being chased by a gorilla.  With the savage ape getting ever closer to his wisecracking nemesis—a violent fight seemed likely.  Everything changed when Bugs picked up a violin and began to play.  The aggression of the gorilla suddenly disappeared and the beast even began to dance around.  The scene was comic and fit into my experience of their being wild and savage animals in the world in contrast to familiar and tame family pets.

Scientists have assembled considerable evidence that identifies dogs as being the first domesticated animal.  Dogs are the descendants of wolves and between 30,000 to 10,000 years ago wolves somehow became incorporated into the camps of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.  No one is exactly sure how the process unfolded—whether wolves gradually became familiar with humans in scavenging for food scraps around the campfire; or if while hunting a series of young wolf cubs were captured and raised by humans beginning the process of domestication.  What is certain is that this process of domestication took place before the advent of agriculture and long before the Hebrew concept of their being only one God.

Today we celebrate the life of St. Francis.  He was a 12th century saint who compared to his hunter-gatherer ancestors benefited from amazing leaps in human development.  Francis lived in a refined and sophisticated world that benefited from advances in agriculture, saw the invention of the wheel, and the development of written language.  The Hebrew people had shared with the world their belief in one God, and Christianity had proclaimed for centuries the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.  In Francis’s day, churches worshiped with gorgeous Gregorian Chant.

Francis was the son of wealthy textile merchant and he lived a life that hunter-gathers could not have imagined.  As a young man Francis enjoyed his wealth and had ideas of seeking military honor.  Francis joined the military and soon saw action on the field of battle.  There he witnessed the horrors of war and saw dozens of men left for dead.  Francis was taken prisoner and held for some time until ransom demands were met.  If Francis shared my childhood notion that only wild Beasts were savage and untamed—in war he learned that there can exist something savage within the human heart.

Sometime after Francis returned home he had a roadside encounter with a leper. Something in that encounter resonated with Francis.  It changed his heart.  He began to identify with Christ and he eventually did a radical thing.  Francis decided not just to minister to the poor—he decided to become poor.  In order to fully live out the Gospel he gave away all that he had.  

Francis it seems came to comprehend the essential truth of God’s love for him and the world, and he was moved to in turn share that love with others.  And so began an incredible ministry.  A ministry that understood that the love of God could transform a savage heart, and also knew that the love of God extended to animals and all of creation.

It’s strange to think that Francis’s life could be so transformed by an encounter with a leper.  On this day it is also interesting to contemplate how once wild animals could become such blessings to us.  Francis learned that both lepers and animals—each in their own way—point to God’s transformative love song for the world. 

The next time you look into the eyes of your pet—think about how once there was a more wild and savage heart there.  It just might remind us how God’s Song of Love has worked to transform the world.  How God’s love song shaped and formed Israel. How God’s hymn was sung by Jesus and transformed his followers.  When the tune of God’s song was picked up by Francis, the world began to understand that the whole of creation was embraced by God.

In the midst of this day’s blessings it’s strange to think that the pets among us were once savage or wild animals.  The Feast of St. Francis reminds us that God’s love song comes to us through time affirming that: our hearts, our lives, our souls will be soothed and transformed by God’s steadfast Love.

Homily offered by The Reverend Doctor Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California, at the 8:00am and 10:15am (outdoor) services, on 1 October 2017, The Feast of Saint Francis.  Lessons: Galatians 6:14-18; Psalm 148:7-14; Matthew 11:25-30.

Pentecost 11: God’s Revolutionary Love (The Rev. Dr. Eric Hinds)

A few years ago, at a Sotheby’s Auction in England, a first edition of the book De revolutionibus, in English known as On the Revolutions, sold for over one million dollars.  That’s not bad for a title that Arthur Koestler declared was “The book that nobody read.”  If one had to judge only by the title, you might think that On the Revolutions, was about the American, French, or possibly other popular uprisings.  Given that the author was Nicolaus Copernicus, and the full title of the book translated from Latin is Six Books on the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres—one can see that the valuation of the book rests upon the role that it played in changing humankind’s perception of our place in the universe.

Perhaps you have met the occasional person today who acts like they are at the center of the Universe and everything revolves around them—the fascinating thing about On the Revolutions is that 500 years ago, at the time of publication, everyone assumed that we as humans were at the center of creation—that we lived in a universe where God inhabited the heavens along with the sun, moon and all the planets—all which were believed to revolve around the earth.  In his lifetime Copernicus was reluctant to publish his work placing the sun at the center of our solar system both because of his fear of public ridicule, and because he knew that his work would be seen as a challenge to the ultimate authority of the Church.  Nicolaus Copernicus was deeply aware of both how tightly people could hold onto conventional wisdom and the way institutions resisted challenge to their authority.

Tomorrow, among the millions of people who people will view a full or partial Solar eclipse—most will not realize that after Copernicus published On the Revolutions it took another 100 years of dedicated work by scientists like Kepler and Galileo to complete the Copernican Revolution that forever changed the way that we think about our place in the world.  In this Context, it is interesting to contemplate the magnitude of experience usually required for us to change our minds.

A long time ago I remember talking to a sales person who always anticipated resistance and so he began his sales pitch by asking the potential customer if they thought of themselves as an open minded person.  The sales person’s experience was that many people already had a fixed framework for viewing the world.  When you think about it there are many realms of life where one is penalized for changing one’s mind.  Politicians encounter this all the time—the candidate who flip-flops is often portrayed as pandering, and yet there are times when a change of mind might actually point to a new insight and a real leap of growth.  In my experience, when we approach reading and interpreting the Gospels, we usually look for consistency of thought and action—and this is especially so in the case of examining the life of Jesus.  With all this in mind this morning’s Gospel presents us with a challenge because it is difficult to square the initial response of Jesus to the Canaanite woman with that of a caring and compassionate Savior.

As background for this morning’s Gospel, Jesus has engaged in his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing in the Galilee region of northern Israel.  We are not given a reason why Jesus and his disciples travel to a non-Jewish region, a territory about 40 miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee.  In the first century, Tyre and Sidon were prosperous Roman port cities located on the Mediterranean Sea.  And there it is that Matthew tells us that a Canaanite woman approaches and shouts—acknowledging the elevated status of Jesus—and pleads with him to heal her daughter who is tormented by a demon.  After the initial silence of Jesus—we note the annoyance of the disciples who say Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.  When the focus shifts back to Jesus he responds saying simply I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. 

It strikes one as more than odd that the reaction of Jesus already borders on callous—not offering to help a woman who is pleading on behalf of her daughter.  When one thinks about how difficult it would be to go out into public and to plead and beg for healing—the next step is extraordinary.  The woman kneels before Jesus and simply says Lord, Help Me.

As measured by the rest of the Gospel the next phrase uttered by Jesus is almost unfathomable.  He Says It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.  It’s stunning that Jesus would speak this way.  At this point some commentators intercede on behalf of Jesus and say look—this is simply a case where Jesus is caught with his compassion down.  This line of thought imagines that Jesus has been laboring without much of a break—and well—this woman just catches him at the wrong time.  That reasoning would hold more sway—if the response of Jesus were just not so insulting. Taking the children’s food and throwing it to the dogs—is a cutting remark—Brutal—when placed in comparison to the request.

At this point one would not expect the Canaanite woman to withstand such an insult—but amazingly she manages to utter “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”  It is a completely unexpected utterance.  One of: determination, composure, and grace—to which Jesus finally responds Woman, great is your faith—and he heals her daughter.

It is an amazing exchange—for one’s sees the whole world view of Jesus suddenly open and expand.  What for Jesus began as a mission solely to the people of Israel—has expanded to a foreign woman of the larger Gentile world.  In a world dominated by tribalism Jesus is able to extend a healing hand across established religious divisions.  The thing that is fascinating to me is that the woman somehow ceases to be seen as an annoying outsider to the faith clamoring for attention, but rather she is eventually treated simply as a woman with a sick daughter.

Some preachers have ventured to title their sermon on this text Canaanite Women’s Lives Matter in an attempt to highlight the blatant injustice and prejudice experienced by this first century group.  I would observe that while such a label is apt and draws upon parallels in our own day—it is far too narrow to capture the full importance of this encounter.  This healing is followed by instances where other classes of outsiders are welcomed and included.  Jesus and his disciples had already extended their mission to those traditionally excluded: lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes, and soon after the Canaanite woman’s healing, Jesus welcomed a Samaritan woman and then healed the servant of a Roman Centurion.  Each of these encounters provide further insights into the inclusiveness of God’s Kingdom.

Our christology—the way that we understand Jesus to be human and divine—usually leans towards emphasizing the divinity of Jesus.  This tends to blind us from seeing moments where Jesus achieves human moments of real insight and growth.  This is not a small point for if we claim that Jesus shares our humanity—then we should rightly look for a Savior who shares in our predicaments and struggles.  

In this case, it is of some comfort to know that our efforts to overcome tribalism—our attempts to see beyond: our own people—our own group of comfort, is something that might take work and require growth.  It is a measure of maturation to come to the realization that our race, our gender, our class our orientation, or even our Church, may not hold exclusive claim to the center of the Universe.  The revolutionary lesson of this morning’s Gospel is that we ever are in need of finding ways to engage one another.

Over the past two weeks we have been reminded that this is the lesson that various “hate groups” have failed to grasp—and that attempting to lay exclusive claim to any form of tribal purity will ultimately fail.  It’s as futile as trying to go back and argue that the sun really revolves around the earth.  It was encouraging to see pictures of tens of thousands peaceful protesters gathering in Boston yesterday, and on Friday in Portland, Oregon, where the rather cleverly titled “Eclipse Hate” rally seemed to go off without incident.

The other important witness of the Gospel for us today is to note that Jesus and his followers did not occupy their time looking for groups to oppose—rather they bore positive witness by sharing the message and good works of the Gospel far and wide.  To this end, The Southern Poverty Law Center offered the Boston rally and others the good advice to avoid direct contact with groups like the Neo-nazis or white nationalists since interacting with them only gives them a larger platform for spreading their message of hate.

In the weeks and months ahead we might be reminded that the revolution that Jesus set in motion—was most often seen and experienced through simple human encounters.  We participate in that revolution when we set aside our tribal preconceptions and let God’s redeeming love shine through us—revealing that it is God’s love that can be found at the center of the Universe.

Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, 20 August 2017, Year A.  Lessons: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:[10-20],21-28.

Easter 6A: Love Your Neighbor: Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (The Rev. Dr. Eric Hinds)

Love Your Neighbor: Paul Among Jews and Gentiles
Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Eric Kimball Hinds

Almost 30 years ago, after I had made the decision to attend seminary, on a journey towards ordination to become an Episcopal priest, but before our young family of three had picked up and moved to The General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, a fellow parishioner presented me with the gift of a book—which was titled The Search for God at Harvard. The book had just been published and it was written by Ari Goldman whose name was well known to me—as he was a correspondent for The New York Times. At the time he wrote the weekly column on Religion. While working at The Times, Goldman managed to balance the demands of his Orthodox Jewish faith with the schedule and deadlines of a journalist—and incredibly was given a Sunday through Thursday workweek.

It was while he was the Religion Correspondent that Goldman hatched the idea of furthering his religion writing credentials by spending a year at the Harvard Divinity School—so that he could engage more deeply in the world of contemporary religions. One of the things that fascinated me about Goldman’s book was his description of how he was looking forward to directly encountering Christianity and gleaning insights of a faith so different from his own.

And so it surprised me when Goldman described that he felt kind of cheated—for most everywhere that he went he found that the Christians seemed to bend over backwards to apologize for the mention of Jesus. And I remember being so grateful for Ari Goldman’s observation for I eventually realized that he was describing the early stages of a process where many different religious traditions were just starting to think about, and feel their way through, finding ways to engage one another with the hope of building bridges of friendship across differences. And the immediate challenge that presents itself in such situations—is how do you on the one hand hold onto and value your own identity, while at the same time being welcoming and not feeling in competition with another?

Goldman attended Harvard Divinity School in the 1980’s—a time when many religious denominations were just beginning to venture beyond what I would describe as shells of isolation—a kind of religious protectionism that fears diluting or losing a perceived hold on truth more than exploring the benefits of getting to know your neighbor. The good news for us is that we benefit from decades of examples of communities reaching out beyond denominational identity to discover areas of shared interest while appreciating differences.

For some time now the lives of both Peninsula Temple Beth El and St. Matthew’s have intersected. We have worked together with Home & Hope, a local organization dedicated to

dealing with the issue of homelessness in our back yard. But it is really out of our joint participation in the Martin Luther King Day of Service—where among other things we discovered that our congregations have core groups of talented pancake flippers—that a set of relationships led to a set of mutual invitations to visit one another’s houses of worship.

On behalf of our entire congregation I just want to say how welcomed we felt last month when our unexpectantly large group accepted the invitation to attend your Shabbat Service and how thankful we are for your gracious and generous hospitality. We hope not only that we can reciprocate, but that our time together leads to an ongoing relationship marked by friendship and mutual affection.

Now at this point I will share that several of my parishioners—well actually quite a few—commented after attending the Shabbat service that they noticed that there was no sermon. (Now I want to be clear—it was not like a YES!! NO SERMON!!) It was more like an observation that was a kind of lament—for the observation I think betrayed a desire among our congregation to learn more about Judaism and to expand and deepen our knowledge of one another. Towards this end I would point out that in the past decades there has actually been a significant amount of attention given by biblical scholars to areas where our religious traditions intersect—a cooperative effort of scholarship that has done important work to remove old prejudices—and even in some cases lead to a deeper appreciation of our shared history.

In this morning’s first lesson we encountered a fairly famous passage where upon finding an altar dedicated To An Unknown God—the Apostle Paul takes the opportunity to preach to the Greeks in Athens about the God that he has come to know—Both through Judaism and his experience of the risen Christ. Nothing about this passage is simple—but I will point out that recent scholarship has highlighted that centuries of Christian interpretation have both forgotten and misunderstood important parts of Paul’s story and writings.

As a starting point most people do not know that Paul of the New Testament is one of only two Pharisees who have left behind any personal writings (Josephus is the other). On this basis alone says the Jewish biblical scholar Alan Segal—Paul is of interest for what his life can can tell us about first century Judaism. Digging deeper, one of the stereotypes of Paul, and the principle way that he has been understood through the centuries is as an apostate of Judaism—an individual whose conversion (temporary Emphasis) to Christianity can only be seen as affirming one tradition—and negating the other. And it is this trap—a false choice of extremes as applied to Paul—that has led to great misunderstandings.

Ari Goldman lamented that, by the time he got to Harvard, the groundbreaking Swedish New Testament scholar, Krister Stendahl, had left the faculty to serve as bishop of Stockholm. In his famous book, Paul among Jews and Gentiles, Stendahl persuasively argues that we should not properly speak of the conversion of Paul at all. Rather, Stendahl argues for adopting the language of prophetic call—a notion that comes to us from the Hebrew Scriptures. Stendahl at length details and articulates how Paul himself uses language that is very similar to the calls of the great prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah to describe his intense religious experience of the risen Jesus. Stendahl goes a step further, and his insight is worth our study, for he points out that Paul’s Call is to a specific vocation—where he comes to see himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles—an Apostle of the one God who is the creator of both Jews and Gentiles.

A careful reading of today’s first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates Paul’s absolutely firm grounding in Judaism. I proclaim to you: The God who made the world and everything in it….The Lord of Heaven and earth…From one ancestor he made all nations…We ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone….Paul’s experience is grounded in the Hebrew scriptures. In his preaching to the Gentile Greeks, Paul clearly has a foot in two worlds and elsewhere in his own writings he attempts to reconcile the two major strands of his religious experience. While Paul struggled to understand it—in his writings he affirmed God’s mysterious plan for the coexistence between Judaism and Christianity, and he cautioned the early church against harboring feelings of superiority.

Stendahl’s brilliant insights into the first century perspective of Paul helps to illuminate some of the tragic misunderstandings that followed as later generations of Gentile Christians lost sight of the foundational way that Judaism had informed Paul’s relationship with and love for God. We Christians are just now beginning to rediscover the depth of all that Judaism contributed to the Apostle Paul’s knowledge and love of God.

In his year at Harvard Ari Goldman attended many interfaith events and he described how on many occasions he could hear the voice of his Orthodox Rabbi—Rabbi Siegal in the back of his head, complete with the image of his waving a finger, warning of the dangers of interfaith encounters. I have likewise heard members of several Christian denominations express concerns about contact and exposure to doctrines that deviate from their particular faith. From our collective experience—of reaching out to others—-We know differently. In attending the services of other faiths Goldman described his visits this way. He observed: In each case I leave as a Jew, rooted in my own faith—but nourished by the faith of others. That is do wonderfully stated.

As our visitors you have landed in the midst of our ongoing celebration of Easter. Part of the joy of our celebration on this day is knowing that we worship a God who is greater than our individual capacities of knowing and comprehension. We have come to know that we need one another, not only to strengthen the fabric of our larger community, but to learn from one another the many ways that God is at work in the world—in the midst of God’s many and varied people. We gather this day with great joy to affirm that we worship a God who is greater than our differences. A God who calls us to above all reach out and to get to know and love our neighbors.

Sermon preached by The Reverend Doctor Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on 21 May 2017, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A on the occasion of a visit by members from the congregation of Peninsula Temple Beth El. Lessons: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21.

Easter 5A: I will prepare a place. (The Rev. Lindsay Marie Hills)

Hospitals are often busy and noisy places…

all around people are moving, often quickly,

announcements can be heard overhead,

incessant beeping,

blaring alarms…

the hustle and bustle never seems to stop….

unless you find yourself into the NICU….or neonatal intensive care unit, like I did a year ago today….

At 3:30 am, after the babies have been fed and tended to,

they get tucked back into their little isolettes (incubators),

the lights are dimmed,

the nurses sit down and begin their charting….

the silence is pierced only

-by an occasional warning beep of an oxygen monitor

-the musical melody of a completed feed, by the feeding tube

-or the muffled whimper of a little one trying to get back to sleep

In this space….in this calmness…

While I sit in my rocker with a wrinkly, wriggly 8 week old laying square on my chest, hung-over on milk and tucked warmly under the hospital blankets that somehow exude the inescapable smell of maple syrup

….there is a peace which passes all understanding….

….a peace which took weeks for me to uncover in this place that so many parents worst nightmares come true.

….a place where what is often people’s happiest days of their life takes a bitter turn into a world of worry, uncertainty and heartbreak….

Surrounded by this overwhelming sense of peace…

I sat there and rocked in my chair…trying to take it all in.…..

then the pagers started going off….

and the nurses once at their computer terminals quickly jumped to their feet….

-they seemed to work almost in silence as they whizzed around the NICU….

– members of the advanced life saving team, begin to cover their navy scrubs with pull on protective gear, hair caps, and booties…

-the panda,also known as the emergency isolette, is being prepped for transport, checked and double checked, the nurse gives a thumbs up and is promptly pushed beyond the double doors by the nurses dressed  head to toe in light blue disposable gear making them appear like something from out of this world.

       -iv tubing is being cleaned and double checked

-Prescriptions are put on standby

-a surgical cart is being prepped

-ex ray machines are called in

-the heat in the incubator is turned up

-doctors start arriving

– with a sense of urgency but also an overwhelming sense of calm …everyone gets to work

I had seen this scene dozen’s of times since we first arrived weeks ago…
but this time…
this time… was different….

this time my mind wandered…..and all I could hear was this passage from John’s Gospel we heard today…. “do not let your hearts be troubled…….believe in God….believe also in me.”

It was the first-time God felt present in the midst of what had been weeks of pain, uncertainty, exhaustion and loneliness…and the message was one of pure comfort….

But it was something far greater than just regular comfort.

It was as if for the first time I had received clarity about the immeasurable and unfathomable love of God that John was trying so hard to articulate, in these final moments of Jesus’ life.

Because the passage we heard today is one of the options for funeral readings, it is one I am quite familiar with, have researched and have attempted to preach on dozens of times, and yet THIS was the first time I really — felt like I understood it

After the foot washing, after breaking bread with his disciples one last time, after the departure of Judas…. Jesus’s words attempt to provide comfort to the confused and lost disciples….for only he knows the entirety of what is to transpire  in the days and weeks to come.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

While Jesus attempts to assuage the disciples’ fears, Thomas and Philip continue to be troubled…their questions reveal an almost palpable sense of anxiety.

Anxiety about being left behind.

Anxiety about loosing their beloved friend once and for all.

And yet Jesus asks them to simply trust him, pointing out what he thinks is obvious, that he and the Father — God are one…..reminding them, as John’s Gospel often does, that from the very beginning….. God changed God’s relationship with humanity once and for all, by having made Jesus incarnate… “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”  Through this great incarnation….through his birth…life as we know it changed forever.

As preparations continued to take place all around me I realized that this is the Gospel message…in this preparation lies the hope of the resurrection…..that ultimately a place is being prepared for us, that Jesus will take us with him to that final resting place.

Before this moment I THOUGHT the hope lied in knowing Jesus was taking us with him…..but the real hope and beauty of the passage unraveled before my very eyes as all these nurses and doctors gingerly prepared the way to welcome this new fragile life into the NICU.

The promise IS eternal life….but the immense love that God shows to God’s people IS in the preparation….

I imagine that Jesus’ promise to go ahead of the disciples, to prepare a place for them…to prepare a place for us…. looks a lot like the calm yet calculated care that the NICU team takes to prepare a place for a new baby.

Sometimes they would get three or four  even five false alarms…. before it was actually time…. but they responded with the same love and care and painstaking preparation each and every time…. seemingly not out of obligation….but out a deep sense of vocation and pure privilege, because that’s what it takes to be responsible for ushering new life into the world in safety….and that is the ridiculously unfathomable love that Christ attempts to explain to his disciples, before his departure…..

There will be a place for you….I will prepare it….there is room for all.

As I continued to sit there, listening to his little labored breaths up and down, down and up, as he lay on my chest and seeing the doctors work on the little 910 gram girl next to us glowing bright red under the warmth of the heat lamp…..I was overwhelmed with a sense of awe and wonder knowing that when my own son was born…..

they must have taken just as good care of him….

that they had likely spent all day and several days eagerly anticipating his arrival, for long before he came screaming into the world there were several false alarms.

 

But knowing that they were prepared to receive him….

provided me with an overwhelming sense of comfort that I had not encountered in this sterile space.  Knowing that they must have cared for him the same way they cared for this little girl.

They knew he was coming here before I did.
They were ready when I was not.
They got to see his face and touch him before I could.

The little girl was quickly overcome by doctors, x-ray machines, respiratory therapists

each person carrying out their specific role

each person completing the tasks they are called to do, with very little need to communicate with one another….they cautiously and quickly go to work on the little girl

– her father looked on wide eyed in wonder and yet full of confusion at his perfect pint sized princess is poked and prodded.

And all I can think…is “do not let your hearts be troubled…believe in God”….

if only he knew how much preparation had gone in to making a place for her….

He would believe.

He would trust.

He would know that no matter what….everything will be ok….

His dashed hope would be restored.

In this place…in this moment –sterile space transformed to sacred space…and as I sat there in prayer…

I realized the perfection of God’s plan and faithful preparations….

Even though I struggle SO HARD with wanting things my way and on my terms.

On this Mother’s Day, like all Mother’s Days — many grieve for what has been or has not been, for mother’s lost and mother’s never known, for empty arms and arms too full, for mom’s that could keep it together and mom’s that fell and fall apart.  And yet others celebrate with joy and gratitude their children known and yet to be fully known…..

The tension of anxiety and hope of love and joy wrap this day up with a very, very tight bow, making it almost impossible to undo.  And yet the confluence of this fifth Sunday of Easter and Mother’s day and an assigned Gospel text fit for a funeral, that also can call to mind that new life, that life eternal, that shines as a bright light in the midst of darkness is both ironic and ultimately fitting.

For ultimately it is in God’s loving arms that we will all come to rest from our labors.

It is here where she has prepared a space for us….

it is here where she will nurture us….

It is here where we will be brought to new life.

 

 

 

Tolkien, Matthew & Baptism

Most people become claustrophobic just at the thought of entering a long, narrow, dark tunnel—so imagine being stranded within a section of a tunnel deep within a mountain. Dampness hanging about you. And as you venture to move forward in the pitch dark, instead of finding solid ground, your foot steps into a pool of icy cold water. That little splash in fact marks the edge of a great underground lake. It is here, deep under the earth on the edge of a deadly cold body of water, that the reader eventually encounters the grotesque slimy creature named Gollum.

As J.R.R. Tolkien narrates the story it is the not-so-willing adventurer Bilbo Baggins, who finds himself alone in a tunnel, separated from his Companions. And it is Bilbo’s foot that discovered the lake edge. And as in any good Adventure story, after escaping from the clutches of horrible goblins, Bilbo, now alone in the tunnel, at the edge of an underground lake, is about to face a new challenge.

From an outpost upon a slimy island of rock, out in the middle of that same cold dark lake, Gollum heard the splash of water. With his two big round pale eyes in his thin face Gollum could see Bilbo across the lake. Described as “dark as the darkness itself” without making a sound Gollum gets into his little boat and silently paddles towards Bilbo, his large feet dangling over the side, heading toward the unsuspecting Bilbo. Gollum got his name from the horrible gurgling noise made in his throat when he spoke, and Gollum would normally think nothing of sneaking up behind a stray goblin, or in this case a hobbit, and strangling them in cold blood to provide a tasty meal.

For those of you who have read the book The Hobbit which is a prelude of sorts to the Lord of the Rings, trilogy, this encounter between Bilbo and Gollum sets the stage for the great drama that takes the rest of the trilogy to unfold. For in this meeting, one learns that Gollum has been the finder and custodian of a ring so powerful—that it corrupts anyone who wears it.

In Gollum, Bilbo encounters a creature that was once a hobbit like himself; Yet, as a result of being subjected to centuries of the corroding influence of the ring, Gollum is almost unrecognizable—the ring has twisted both his Hobbit body and mind in grotesque ways. The only thing that saves Bilbo in this unexpected meeting, is that Gollum has lost the ring, and he wonders if Bilbo might have found it.

In literature, a good villain or foe is not easy to conceive and execute—and one of the examples of why The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are able to transcend the label of mere “escapist fantasy” can be found by examining the complexity of the character of Gollum. In Gollum readers encounter a repulsive creature capable of horrible deeds and yet that reality is tempered by Tolkien who eventually provides the knowledge that Gollum was once a ordinary hobbit. That there was, and perhaps still is, a goodness deep within Gollum that has been buried.

Without specifically talking about Theology, Tolkien effectively supplies the reader with the notion that Gollum might indeed have been created with an inherent goodness. A Christian might put it as—created in God’s image—with the observation that aspects of life can combine and converge in such a way that the original goodness is all but covered up.

Much further into the saga of The Lord of the Rings, when a Bilbo’s son Frodo suggests that perhaps they all would be better off if Bilbo had just done away with Gollum when he had the chance back in that very first encounter—it is Gandalf, the wise wizard, who Observes that: perhaps for Gollum—all is not lost—that there yet may be a role for him to play in their mission against the powers of darkness.

In the first century, in the region of Galilee, at the tax-booth near the sea—it would have been difficult to find a more despised and hated man than Matthew, the tax collector. Tax collectors were sell-outs. Roman sympathizers. Betrayers of the Hebrew people, they were willing to sell friends, family and neighbors, down the river—causing real pain and financial hardship. As a religious Jew, suffering under Roman occupation, to befriend Matthew would be akin to saying you were disowning your family and casting your lot with the worst of the wretched. And yet, in this morning’s Gospel we are given a scene where Jesus, while walking along, sees Matthew at his tax booth—and it seems almost casually that he offers an invitation: Follow Me.

Follow Me!? If there were any crowds around, that simple invitation would be like tossing a live grenade into the center the gathering. The text tell us that the Pharisees were appalled—but this action by Jesus would certainly also have stunned Andrew, Peter, James and John—the hardworking fisherman who were the first to respond to the invitation of Jesus when he said Follow Me. That Jesus was willing to invite: a known sell-out, a professional sinner, Our Patron Saint!, must have seemed unfathomable to his followers. And yet the fact that, upon seeing Matthew, knowing all about his livelihood, the horrible opinions that others held against him—knowing all this—and that Jesus still reached out and invited Matthew—-WELL, IT MUST TELL US, It Must Point us Towards—something profound about the way that followers of Jesus are invited to look at the world—The way that we are invited to look at and behold one another.

Where others looked and saw only a despised tax-collector—somehow Jesus was able to see beyond all the things wrong with Matthew—and grasp the beauty and goodness of his inner being. If Matthew were a portrait of a fractured and broken individual—then Jesus managed to see the light shining through the cracks, and Jesus was willing to include Matthew knowing that fellowship with followers passionate for love and fellowship with God and one another had the power to transform Matthew’s life.

This morning we have a Baptism, and it seems to me one of the significant aspects of having a Baptism on this day, The Feast of St. Matthew, is that we make explicit what Jesus implied in his call of Matthew so long ago—that each of us Come into the world created in the Image of God bearing the indelible mark of our creator’s goodness—and that Nothing can ever change that basic fact. Sure it is true that in the course of life we may make mistakes, and that things happen to us that can partially cover-up or obscure that image of goodness, but baptism reminds that that we are ever God’s own—called to a lifelong relationship with God.

Today, our ancient ritual of baptism with water and our invocation of the Holy Spirit, will initiate Sidney into a formal relationship with God and with this congregation, the gathered people of God. And together we will affirm that nothing will ever be able to break the bond of being a valued child of God with unique gifts to share with the world.

As each of us grow, we inevitably make mistakes, missteps in the wrong direction. Perhaps even there has been a time in your life that has resembled flowing a path into a darkening tunnel. A time of uncertainty and doubt. Some have experienced times where reality itself seems twisted around, with the goodness of life distorted and barely recognizable. The exciting part of this Day, a Day with a Baptism on the Feast of St. Matthew is that it reminds us that no matter how difficult or tough is our journey—we can never reach a place beyond the reach of the loving embrace of God. That our lives are never severed from the possibility of transformation and new growth. By extension, this is the good news of the Gospel that we can share with family, friends and our larger community

In the our life journey, we are unlikely to meet characters as lost or as desperate as Gollum, or shunned to the extent of Matthew the tax collector, but we will undoubtedly encounter individuals who have to some lesser extent lost their way. Sometimes it may even be ourselves who have gone off course. And In each case, this day reminds us that Jesus ever extends an invitation—that a new future is always possible, and will open up for us when we respond to the simple invitation to follow me.

Sermon preached by The Reverend Doctor Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on 18 September 2016, The Feast of Saint Matthew and the occasion of the baptism of Sidney Thomas Hills. Lessons: Proverbs 3:1-6; Psalm 119:33-40; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; Matthew 9:9-13.

Proper 15C: Relationship Trouble (Rev. Lindsay Hills)

When I was in junior high, the bishop came to our school. It was an important day for us…..and in my small world, he might as well have been the Pope. We had formal dress uniform that day, and were reminded to be on our best behavior. We were assured it would be mutually beneficial for us if we behaved, because ONLY the Bishop was allowed to issue days off from school. It had been rumored that if we behaved we would get Friday off!

We gathered for Eucharist, and when he preached my attention piqued when he told us he was going to teach us how to pray.

Eager to learn the secret of how to communicate to God, I hung on his every word

For better or worse some 25 years later its one of the few sermons that remains etched in my brain.

The sternness and confidence with which he delivered his directive sermon became my instruction manual for prayer… terrified that God wouldn’t hear me if I “did it wrong” I became obsessed with following the directions he outlined for us to the T….

His guidance was helpful, in that it helped me to think more critically about prayer and how I did it. But largely his words became a kin to a shackle tethering me down and not allowing me to explore the breath of prayer, the types of prayer, or develop my own way of talking to and with God…

Every time I encounter the psalms….I think NOW these people know how to pray or talk to God.

They aren’t afraid to tell God how they feel…aren’t afraid to get angry, to be vulnerable, to admit their own mistakes, to ask for forgiveness, or to offer thanksgiving. The psalms cover the breadth of human yearning, prayers for all times and all occasions, reflecting the true diversity of our hearts.

This Sunday, we recited portions of Psalm 80.

A psalm of lament, “a passionate expression of grief and sorrow”[1]….the heart of the psalmist is poured out in prose….beginning with a plea to God, almost in desperation…

“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,” listen to us God, please listen to us….

This is followed by a portion of the psalm we did not hear this morning, a portion where we hear of a people desperate to be restored, longing to be saved….

For it continues:

3  

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

 
4 O LORD God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?
 
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
 
6 You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

(psalm 80:3-7, Book of Common Prayer — Psalter)

We hear first hand a people that feel betrayed, forgotten, dismissed by their God…

a people trying to understand why God has left them….despite their prayers.

a people who have become the laughing stock of their neighbors and enemies…

a people who at times we can relate to, probably all to well….

The psalmist continues, by outlining all the amazing things God has done for them, with thanksgiving…..they continue to pray….

Thankful that God has taken them out of Egypt, as a tender vine, in need of replanting….and God’s amazing self …

replants them,

cares for them,

protects them….

taking the time to build them up and allowing them to flourish.

For it is only through the nurturing power of God that a once small vine can stretch its tendrils out to the Sea and its branches t the River.

This is the God of blessing,
the God of abundance,
the God of Love….

Their prayer of lament continues, as they wrestle with how this God they know and love could turn their back on them. how a God that once loved them and cared for them so deeply, could then make them vulnerable to attack and allow them to be devoured.

In an interesting turn of events near the end of the psalm, the people boldly demand that God REPENT….for what God has done to them…. ”Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine…..preserve what your right hand has planted.”

A final plea for God to change God’s ways and remain in relationship with them

Its almost as if they had prayed……

O God, you are amazing, listen to all the amazing things you have done.

We said we are sorry, please be in relationship with us again. We miss you.

Why did you let all these bad things happen to us.

You should say your sorry for the bad things you did.

Please make it right. We are waiting.

How refreshing.

 

-How often have you yearned to say those things to God, but perhaps felt unable to,

-or wanted to be angry at God for abandoning you in a moment of great need, but felt like to be angry at God was bad or sinful….

-or in the face of daily tragedy around the world, gotten wrapped up in the everyday lament of why God allows bad things to happen to good people….

 

In so many ways the psalmist offers language that many of our hearts have struggled to express….

And yet, while it is indeed a psalm of lament it is simultaneously a psalm of hope.

The people ask how long, how long will God turn away from them….knowing that even though they may feel estranged, God nevertheless continues to listen to God’s people, or else there would be no need to offer a public lament in the first place, no need to ask God to turn back, if they really felt that God had truly left them.

It has never crossed my mind to demand an apology from God, and yet the brazen psalmist does. Through the psalmists’ plea for God to “turn again,” or repent, and look with favor on the people once more, we see a God whose fundamental being is intimately tied to relationship. And to be in relationship calls for continual adjustment, recalibration, and evaluation…. [2] Relationships come with joy and sadness. They demand give and take, and reciprocity. A reciprocity that requires a commitment to continued conversation even when we feel betrayed or abandoned, angry or mad….a conversation that we are reminded today is rooted in prayer….

After struggling with prayer for sometime, my spiritual director reminded me that prayer….is something we practice….like anything else in our lives its not something that we do flawlessly, or comes without its challenges, or that we are even naturally good at…its something that requires our attention and faithfulness, and like all things we practice— we only get better over time….

It doesn’t have to be the right prayer…or the perfect prayer…just faithful prayer.

Prayer is not how often we sit down with our hands crossed and eyes closed —-but more about intentionally engaging with our God.

It’s not about the words we say aloud ——but how they dance in our hearts…

Its about entering into the relationship with the holy on a regular basis…so that when times get tough we can echo the lament of the psalmist….and say to God….”what?” “why?” but more importantly — “How long?”

As Christians we know relationship….

relationship is made known to us through the incarnation, through the mystery of the holy trinity, and through the communion of saints.

And like all relationships we know first hand that they have their challenges….

The psalmist offers us more then desperation and lament….

the psalmist reminds us of the hope…a hope that only comes with being in relationship with one another and with God.

And it is that hope that reverberates through the end of the psalm, that even though times are tough, even though they may be angry and sad, they choose to stay in relationship …promising to never turn away from God, vowing to continue to “call on God’s name.” And as they let out their final request, their final prayer they do just that, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts,” show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.”

The is the challenge offered to us this morning….that regardless of our struggles or disillusionment with God….that we too might remain in relationship with the holy….because God wants nothing more than to be in relationship with each and every one of us.

 

 


[1] Google search “Lament” Available at: https://www.google.com/search?q=lament&oq=lament&aqs=chrome.0.69i59j0l5.751j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

[2] Nancy Koester, Working Preacher, Commentary on Psalm 80:70-15. Available online at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2174

Imagine—A Vision of God’s Kingdom

Imagine there’s no heaven….

It’s the opening lyric of a song that ventures to reflect upon and imagine a better world. 

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

And so the song makes a start at pealing away religious imagery—beginning a critique of traditional belief that reaches a fuller development in the second stanza.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too

 From where we stand today, 36 years after the death of John Lennon, the songwriters words seem particularly poignant. While one marvels at the beauty of the spectacle of the parade of the athletes at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Rio—the gathering of the nations also contains a reminder of the divisions that plague us around the world. We live with the awareness that fresh conflict could erupt in the Middle East—or that tensions between Russia and the Ukraine could continue to escalate—or that China’s oceanic land claims could become problematic. These and a dozen other scenarios could prompt one to lament of the destructive aspects of nationalism, that seem to thwart a peaceful future. And the line

Nothing to kill or die for
and no religion too

reminds us of the way that religion can combine with political ideology to produce a deadly cocktail of hate and violence—as we are acutely aware in the cases of al Qaeda and ISIS.

Because some of the lyrics of the song Imagine seem to negate religious belief—many were led to conclude that Lennon had become an atheist and was antagonistic towards religion. Most of us have had the experience of our religion and faith posing some measure of challenge—either towards our understanding or the exercise of faith.

A quick look at this morning’s gospel poses several challenges. Are we for example—really convinced that we should sell all our possessions and distribute the resulting heap of cash to those who have even less? Or are we actually prepared to remain in a state of constant vigilance for the apparent coming end of times—at an unexpected hour as the teaching of this morning’s gospel indicates? And probing the gospel even further are we really comfortable with a text that has an example that seems to be comfortable with the institution of slavery as a backdrop for making a point about being ready to encounter God? On the road for developing a mature faith the thinking person encounters many challenges—and sometimes, when the going becomes difficult, one can be tempted to toss the whole religious venture aside. And so one of the challenges for organized religion—is to resist the temptation to present a simple faith that requires little investment of time and little thought—and instead promote an active faith engaging the complexity and paradox of the modern world—ultimately pointing toward a transcendent God.

Coming at the challenge of engaging with the Christian faith from a helpful direction, the Christian contemplative, Richard Rohr, wonders how do we deal with the Inherent Unmarketability of the Christian Faith. He asks: “How do you sell emptiness, vulnerability, and nonsuccess? How can you possibly market letting-go in a capitalist culture? How do you present Jesus to a Promethean mind set? And how do you talk about dying to a church trying to appear perfect?”

As a person who practices contemplation Rohr observes that in the fast pace of the world—moving from one activity to the next—life can look and feel like we are on the edge of a non stop merry-go-round—where we have lost the ability to ever find the quiet, stable and secure center. And it is at this point, almost worn out by the velocity of living, that some begin to wonder if they have missed something significant in the realm of Religious life. This is the experience says Rohr, that opens the door for a fresh exploration (perhaps again for the very first time) of the deep roots of Christian spirituality and prayer.

You may find it interesting to know that John Lennon grew up attending his local Anglican church. He went to Sunday School, was a chorister and was active in the youth group. Beatle fans will be amused to learn that in the cemetery that surrounded Lennon’s parish church there was a tombstone with the name Eleanor Rigby. After confirmation, as Lennon entered young adulthood and drifted away from regular worship—it would be a mistake too say that he became non-religious. Most artists are keen observers of the world and like the religious mystics—Lennon often invites a deeper contemplation of the world and our place in it.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can

Wait a minute—that’s what Jesus said

No need for Greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

Again the deeply religious thoughts of Jesus and the Gospel. It’s as if we need these images—endangered of being lost or swallowed up—they find a way to bubble back to the surface to register deep within our psyche—allowing us to search and to press on for deeper connections with God and our fellow humans.

Religious people are shaped by images. They point to a new reality. By letting go of possessions Jesus was attempting to point to establishing new relationships—unburdened by who owns what. In pointing to the end of times, Jesus ventured to have his followers savor every moment and fill every human encounter with meaning. By having the owner of the house return only to invite the servants to sit and eat while being served by their master—was to undermine, and effectively begin to overturn the whole notion of slavery. Deeper religious thought and engagement begins when we stop     to reflect upon God and our place in the world.

On one level, over these past few days, we simply started watching a series of athletic contests unfolding in Brazil in the midst of a predictable list of problems and setbacks. The cynic can sit back and declare what a waste of time and resources. And yet at another level, gathering the nations of the world together to participate in a common event is a great feat of the imagination, and it plants the notion in the recesses of the mind that if this is possible—so are perhaps many other things that we currently think are unattainable.

Jesus did not coin the phrase Your God is too small, yetit is a fitting phrase, for Jesus invited his followers to dream about a better future and to invest in relationships; to spend time getting to know one another and to know God. Jesus reminds us that prayer and reflection is not wasted effort. Rather, He Announces that it is a deeply religious activity seeking to be an active participant in better world—ultimately bringing to life a vision of God’s kingdom that is only limited by the depths of our imagination.

Sermon preached by The Reverend Doctor Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California, on 7 August 2016, The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C. Lessons: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40.

Transfiguration, The Super Bowl, & Change (The Rev. Eric Hinds)

Imagine walking—ticket in hand towards a stadium that holds over 70,000 people. Imagine the challenge just getting there!   Everyone is dressed for a spectacle. Long forgotten are the concerns about financing the stadium, or the length of time for the construction. An event of super natural proportions will put the entire region on the map.

Once at the stadium you can feast upon a wide variety of cakes, pastries, dates, sweetmeats, and generous cups of wine—all served by handsome stewards passing through the crowds. If the sun gets too hot you will be shielded from the sun by means an enormous awning drawn to provide shade. Imagine: 300 tons of iron used in the construction; 100,000 cubic meters of Travertine stone.

In the year, 80 AD, with ticket in hand, you too could gain admission to the Roman Colosseum for the inaugural 100 days of games, which featured a parade, gladiator battles, wild hunts, and animal fights. Admittedly entertainment much more brutal that today’s Super Bowl contest between two football teams—but it was a show that filled the Colosseum to capacity and left crowds wanting more.

By comparison, Levi Stadium, the site of today’s big game, is billed as the most technologically advanced arena for sporting and other events. The $1.2 billion structure is LEED gold certified with a green living roof, and Wi-Fi throughout the stadium. Fans are able to order food and drink during the game via a mobile app. and have their exact order delivered to their seat. A 200 foot wide HD screen in the stadium provides instant replay for fans to review game highlights, and almost every space has multiple TV screens to ensure that no one misses a single game moment.

Knowing our joy and delight in all the features of modern technology—-I wonder if anyone attending those inaugural games at the Roman Colosseum could have imagined anything better or more advanced? I rather imagine an awed spectator turing to their host and saying at those ancient games something like Peter said to Jesus in this morning’s Gospel “Gee this experience is so great—let’s try to preserve it for all time for I can not imagine anything better.” or perhaps simply “Wow! It doesn’t get any better than this!”

And a statement like that should always give us pause for thought—for history shows us that few of us would ever really like, when it comes down to it, to be frozen in time. The brutal violence of the first century, spectators watching gladiators fight to the death, and animals being slain for sport, are the least of the problems with a first century version of the good old days.

Unlike today’s Super Bowl, which takes a free market approach to seating, in the world of the Colosseum there was strict seating policy distinguishable by both class and dress. Roman senators sat within the 1st tier of the stadium. Members of the nobel class sat within the second. Ordinary Roman citizens sat in the third tier, which was further divided into the wealthy and poor sections. Common women were relegated to the nosebleed section, relegated to the upper tier. Except for combatants, slaves were strictly forbidden from the Colosseum. Although construction of the Colosseum began about 40 years after the death of Jesus—-this was the Roman society with which Jesus was familiar. A rigid and often brutal hierarchical society that lived off the underclass. A society where the many, were in service to the few.

We encounter this morning’s gospel text just before the start of the season of Lent each year, and it comes as a kind of reminder that it is easy for religious people to become used to the way things are and even become complacent. In this mornings Gospel, we see that even after Peter, James, and John share an intense experience, a revelation of sorts about who Jesus is—and Peter desperately wanting to hang on that experience, to preserve it—it is Jesus who points his three disciples forward. Forward towards the Journey and discovery ahead. He refuses to dwell in the past.

And thank goodness Jesus moved on. Not only did Jesus move forward, but others continued to add to the work and ministry of Jesus. His disciples continued the proclamation of a Gospel of transformation and love. They continued his ministry of healing, as the movement we know as Christianity began to spread. The Apostle Paul opened up the mission of Jesus to the gentiles—a stunning development! And so one can see why Jesus had a sense of not wanting to dwell in the past, but to move forward.

Unfortunately, the liberating work of Jesus in welcoming women to share in his ministry was a window that would close by the end of the 2nd century. This was a setback one could argue that we, as the church, are only just now really beginning to set right these two millennia later. Likewise, it took people of faith a long time to wrestle with the often overlapping issues of slavery and race, let alone address issues of reproduction or sexual identity.

Today we are at a time and place where many in the church want to hold on to those things and those patterns that have been successful in the past—and in light of this morning’s lesson we might wonder whether Jesus would indulge our stopping to remain in the same place, or whether Jesus would have us move on looking for the next emerging area of ministry.

In a provocative article, ChristianWeek columnist, Carey Nieuwhof, makes ten predictions about the future of the Christian Church and shifting attendance patterns. I have selected five this morning that I think are worth our contemplation. Carey’s second point, I will give first as it is perhaps the most provocative. It is simply “Churches that love their Model MORE than their Mission—Will Die.” “We live in a changing world” observes Carey “and just about every industry has had to change. It would be a strange world indeed if the church did not have to change in some ways as well.” Another way of making this same observation is by asking the question “What are the seven words of a dying Church?” The answer that should give us pause for thought is: We never did it that way before!

If Carey’s second prediction seems too pessimistic—then his first prediction is positive and forward looking. He observes “As despairing or as cynical as some might be (sometimes understandably) over the church’s future, we have to remind ourselves that the church was Jesus’ idea, not ours.” He goes on to predict that It [The Church] will survive our missteps and whatever cultural trends happen around us. We certainly don’t always get things right, but Christ has an incredible history of pulling together Christians in every generation to share his love for a broken world. A point both simply stated and encouraging!

Prediction Three: The Gathered Church—is here to stay. We may have to discover different patterns and our gatherings may look different than they do today, but at its heart Christianity is a communal Venture. Carey affirms that Christians “will always gather together to do more than we ever could on our own.” To which I might add that: In the midst of a society where people increasingly feel isolated from one another—the body that gathers in Christ’s name has a unique role to play in knitting people together into a community that lives for more than itself. A community that provides a sense of meaning and belonging.

Prediction Four: The Online Church—and Online Ministries will supplement individual religious Journeys, but they will never replace actual gatherings and time spent in community. This is in a way similar to observations about online dating. While the internet may have an increasing importance and significance in the way that people find one another and interact—ultimately people desire face to face interactions and community rather than sustained isolation.

Prediction 5—I might say is actually a Challenge. “Simplified ministries will complement people’s lives, not compete with people’s lives.”(repeat) Here it is worth quoting Carey Nieuwhof at length He observes: For years, the assumption has been that the more a church grew, the more activity it would offer. The challenge, of course, is that church can easily end up burning people out. In some cases, people end up with no life except church life. Some churches offer so many programs for families that families don’t even have a chance to be families. The church at its best has always equipped people to live out their faith in the world. But you have to be in the world to influence the world. Churches that focus their energies on the few things the church can uniquely do best will emerge as the most effective churches moving forward. Simplified churches will complement people’s witness, not compete with people’s witness.

This Friday and Saturday your Vestry spent time together, planning and contemplating the future of our Church. It is clear to us that we are in the midst of changing times. In the midst of challenging times. In the midst of exciting times. We are on a Journey together. As we move forward as a parish it will take the gathered wisdom, the collective insights, and assembled energy of our entire community to discern how our future will unfold together. As tempting as it would be to stay at the mountaintop, preserving a moment in time. The Good news of the Gospel today—the exciting news for us is that—our collective future lies in letting Jesus lead us forward. Both, re-affirming old truths, and discovering new ways to be the church in this community for one another and for the larger world. It will at times I’m sure, be a journey of anxiety and challenge, but it’s a journey that we will be on together.

Sermon preached at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California, on 7 February 2016, The Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Transfiguration and Super Bowl Sunday), Year C. Lessons: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4.2; Luke 9:28-36 (37-43a).

Pentecost 6B: Jesus – Just in Case

Every time I hear this passage from Mark, I think back to my Spiritual Director in Philadelphia…. We had a love/hate relationship (at least on my end)….she taught me a lot but I probably would have heard her better had she not been so direct and confrontational. But when I told her I was moving and I was trying to figure out which moving company to use and what I needed to bring. She responded a bit callously in my opinion, “you don’t need a moving company. Just sell it all, leave it all behind.”

I left angry and mad….and figured I would never see her again….so there.

What I realized…is that her response to me was simply more than I could process in my naieve youth, in my pridefulness….. in my stressed out state of uncertainty

I had spent the three years prior to seminary in joyful accumulation of stuff.

What’s more is….working at Crate and Barrel, accumulation of nice stuff. ….I’ll be the first to admit that some of it I “needed” and some of it I’m sure I didn’t “need.”

But the reality is that how hard I had worked to get where I was, to acquire what I had…..got in the way of me being able to hear what my spiritual director was saying….what Jesus was saying….

—-

“he ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics….” (Mark 6:8)

Huh? Are you serious?? Give the man some water, he must be dehydrated…he’s going mad….

I’d like to think that if I was a disciple and was there,

I would have listened to every single word of Jesus,

and did just what he asked…..

But given my track record of abandoning my possessions, or rather, not abandoning my possessions, I am fairly certain that if I was one of the twelve….and I was there in Nazareth….and I had just seen Jesus’ rejection, in, of all places, his very own hometown…..and saw the grumbling crowds, gossiping about the “carpenter”….and his failure to convince the crowds…..

the very last thing I would have done….was follow him….

And yet the disciples went off two by two. On their way….to preach repentance, cast out demons, and anoint the sick with oil. They had a clear sense from Jesus “welcome” in Nazareth what they were in for…..and yet they went on their way regardless…..

They responded, by what can only be described as faith.

An unbridled faith in God.

Faith that Jesus was more than a crazy carpenter.

Because

Only faith…..could lead someone to sacrifice the way they sacrificed…
Only faith….could subside their worries about what they would wear or where they would sleep
Only faith….could calm their skepticism

—–

This week as I frantically filed papers and straightened my office I came to the stark realization that if I didn’t go on vacation or take trips, my office would quickly resemble something shy of hoarders. You see, before vacation I take to cleaning pretty much everything…my home…my office…my car….its nice to come back to everything in order….like coming home to something special or new.

My desk nicely cleaned off….

I quickly set to the next task of packing….

This being my least favorite part of time away….next to the airport.

I’m not an overpacker per say….but by the time I get my 5 days worth of clothing pulled together….my suitcase is well on its way from a light carryon to an overstuffed, checked bag with one of those bright orange “heavy” or “overweight” tags on it.

No matter how much I pare down my bag for the journey….

When I get to my destination it somehow always borders on the absurd when I open it up.

Why on earth did I bring a sweatshirt to Massachusetts in the dead of the summer?
Just in case.

Or end up with 10 pairs of socks for a 3 day trip?
Just in case.

Or endless craft projects “to do on the airplane”, when I always just sleep?
Just in case.

—–

What we are reminded of in today’s gospel…

is that God is supposed to be our……..“Just in case.”

God becomes all the disciples need, in order for them to be on their way,

And for us today…..challenged to spread the Good News by what we say, and do, and how we live our life…it should be EVEN easier than it was for the disciples

….for our faith has been strengthened and solidified in the faithfulness of God made known to us through Jesus

the king born in a barn…..

the carpenter turned messiah……

the crucified and risen…..

If we are to truly understand our calling as disciples….. HE becomes all we need for our journey ahead…our journey as Easter people….our journey as Christians.

The disciples had faith……and yet when they are called to surrender their lives, they did….and they did so without having the benefit of knowing the resurrected Christ, and yet they went on their way two by two regardless.

Part of the journey of discipleship, is not getting it right or perfect ALL the time…the disciples knew the road wouldn’t be smooth…and the hospitality wouldn’t be overflowing…..but they still responded out of faithfulness.

The Gospel message is not about getting it right all the time…..or being perfect……(though sometimes we may think it is).

In reality the Gospel message is about our faithfulness….

And at the end of the day that is all that is asked of us…

It’s about how we respond to the call…to the challenge…to our commissioning.

It’s about learning about ourselves….

paying attention to when we resist….

when we question….

when we are uncomfortable…

When that spiritual director…told me to sell everything….I got so defensive and so upset….and it triggered something in me that made me feel sick inside….partly because I knew she was right…

I knew what scripture said…

i knew the theology…

I knew what it meant to be a follower of Christ…

but I was so connected to my stuff that I couldn’t help but react….

From that moment…I have never packed for anything without questioning what I am bringing with me….

From the easier questions like….
What baggage are you taking on this vacation that can be left behind???

To the more difficult questions….
On this journey of life….what is making your sack heavier than it needs to be???
How often do you rely on faith, and LET Jesus, be your “just in case”???

Don’t let me fool you by any means….i still get one of those bright orange “heavy” tags every once in awhile… but what I can tell you is that….I think twice with every single thing that goes in my bag….

The good news is that we don’t need to be perfect….just faithful.

And that is what we are invited to remember…..but more importantly LIVE into today…..